In competition at Berlin, Edward Berger’s Jack (2014) is a laconic adolescent drama that burns with all the dynamism and intensity of a hyperactive child, yet struggles to maintain its fierce momentum. Despite being only ten, the film’s titular protag (Ivo Pietzcker) finds himself responsible for both himself and his younger brother, Manuel (Georg Arms). Jack whizzes through the kitchen like a tornado, preparing breakfast and collecting laundry. He’s never met his father and his mother (Jodine Johne), whilst young at heart and fun to frolic with, works during the day and spends most of her evenings gallivanting with her girlfriends.
The Oedipal complex symbolically achieved, Jack’s love for his family and commitment to his role as a makeshift patriarch results in him becoming hostile towards his mother’s boyfriends, voluntarily accepting the responsibilities of the ‘man of the house’ and unwilling to relinquish the position. However, his inexperience and youthful naiveté soon reveal themselves when he accidentally leaves Manuel in a bath full of scolding hot water. This faux pas alerts the social services to Jack’s mother’s neglect and sees him transferred to a juvenile institution. Homesick and desperate to return to his mother, Jack struggles to integrate with the other children – leading to a rash and shocking incidence of violence that alters everything.
Wrestling with the hefty emotions evoked by paternal rejection, Jack – not unlike Cyril, the star of the Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike – is a pressurised vessel of anger and dejection, ready to burst at any moment. The only question that remains is just how his emotional liberation will communicate itself. Berger’s camera never leaves Jack’s side, clinging to him constantly and totally immersing us into his tense state, allowing us to experience the magnitude of his internal anguish. At times, it’s easy to forget that we’re seeing the world through the eyes of a child, testament to just how mature and concentrated Pietzcker’s performance is. Laden with a demanding central role, Pietzcker commendably holds our attention throughout, even if Berger’s script struggles to keep us fully engaged.
After an explosive introduction to Jack and his domestic dynamic, Berger’s film soon succumbs to the inevitable clichéd set pieces and rousing musical cues that often beset such dramas. It’s a shame, as for the majority of Jack, Berger spends his time admirably occupying the grey areas that are often ignored in drama with such a socially aware perspective. There’s no grand overriding message about contemporary culture’s lack of earnestness or the responsibility of the state to safeguard the population. Instead, Berger focuses on the devastation paternal rejection can generate and the repercussions on a young, developing mind. By the satisfying finale, we’ve observed Jack evolve from a child burdened with adult responsibility into a young adult whose eyes have finally been opened.
The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.